Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park

Frank Lloyd Wright was an American visionary. He was an architect but also an interior designer, writer and educator. Wright, who designed more than 1,000 structures in his 7-decade career, created structures and living spaces that were in harmony with the surrounding environment and with the humanity that would inhabit the spaces. He was instrumental in creating whole new movements in architecture and his designs were for spaces as varied as churches, office buildings, museums, skyscrapers and homes. He was a phenomenally busy man.

Russell William Morland Kraus was also a very busy and driven man. Kraus, who was trained at Washington University and the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, had worked in a supervisory capacity for WPA art projects in the 1930s. Kraus had also served with the Army Engineers Map Office during World War II, and, after the war, he began to search for a large suburban site where he could build a new house and enjoy the St. Louis countryside.

IMG_9283Kraus read about a house Wright had built for a middle-income client near Washington D.C. and decided to contact the architect, whom he greatly admired, with a proposal that he design a home in the Usonian style for him. Wright was, at the time, working on his late-life masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and was, in addition to being considered extremely eccentric, quite famous and busy trying to complete the many ideas and projects he was attempting to finish in the time he had left. Perhaps Wright’s eccentricity, and his desire to bring his design concepts to a wider audience, worked to Kraus’ advantage.

IMG_9284Though Wright had designed and built homes for the fabulously well-to-do, including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park, he had developed a design theme he called the Usonian home back in the 1930s. The Usonian home was modest in size but, as with all of Wright’s designs, built in harmony with nature. It also incorporated well-planned “work areas” for kitchen, laundry and other chores, a highly accessible dining area and a living space that sometimes comprised up to half of the home’s floor space.  He was also very interested in these living spaces having uniquely American stylings, departing from the high-ceilinged boxes of Victorian or other European designs.

Wright’s designs, for public spaces, Prairie style homes and Usonian homes were guided by sharp angles and low profiles, the use of natural wood and stone and, in the case of Fallingwater, the incorporation of a waterfall into the house itself. Angled bricks and corners that met at 60 and 120 degree angles confounded many contractors but, once completed, gave a Wright-designed home a look that is instantly recognizable. Often, in order to achieve the total immersion of design he wanted, Wright would design not only the house but the furniture and glass work and carpeting; he would even hand pick the vases and artwork that would be allowed in the home.

IMG_9280Wright asked for and received a “wish list” from Russell and Ruth Goetz Kraus, detailing what they did and did not want in their home. The phenomenally busy, but also phenomenally productive, Wright returned a design built on the idea of intersecting parallelograms which are used throughout the house, furniture and even flooring.

The wood that Wright chose for the home was also a problem.  Tidewater red cypress was extremely difficult to find and was available from only a very few suppliers in a couple of southern states. So difficult was the wood to find that the initiation of building was delayed and then stopped later until new supplies could be found.

IMG_9306The construction took over four years and the cost was far over what was expected.  Problems with bricks, copper and wood were encountered, and adjacent properties needed to be purchased to prevent the construction of other buildings that would have, to the Kraus point of view, detracted from the masterpiece of living style they were creating.

The ordeal of building the home often was nearly too much, but the home was finished, even after Wright’s death in 1959, and was the home for the couple for 32 years. Ruth passed away in 1992 and Russell sought to sell the home. After three decades of living, the home needed work, however, and a buyer seemed elusive. The home was certainly worth saving and to that end a conservancy was created. Over the next several years the board worked to raise the money, over $2 million, to buy and restore the home and surrounding property.

IMG_9285In 2001, the group had completed its work and opened the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park. The property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is open year-round for guided tours by appointment. The home is located at 120 North Ballas Road and tours can be arranged by calling 314-822-8359 or by visiting www.ebsworthpark.org.

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Saving the Environment One Classroom at a Time

While visiting the St. Louis area, a teacher from Mississippi happened upon the St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center and found dozens of newly donated beakers, glass test tubes and other classroom laboratory equipment. The teacher told founding Executive Director Susan Blandford “if it wasn’t for your program we wouldn’t have Science class, because all of the materials have to come out of my pocket.”

Many of us have heard stories about teachers who are scrambling to find inexpensive school supplies and materials for art projects. At one point in our lives, each of us has likely contributed egg cartons, milk jugs, buttons or other household castaways to a neighborhood school for use in an art class. With tiny supply budgets and limited resources, teachers have spent decades finding and working with recycled materials in their classrooms.

The St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center is a virtual wonderland for creative minds. Everything is donated by the general public or by local industries, providing 20,000 pounds of materials each year. The Center’s mission is to keep reusable items out of landfills and provide them to children and classrooms that desperately need them. When asked where all of these donations come from, Susan advises, “word of mouth seems to propel a lot of the donated goods, with a lot of people just walking in and dropping things off.” Pointing to several large stacks of multi-colored straw hats, Susan remarked that they had received an entire tractor trailer load of them from a donor.

IMG_9435A lifelong educator and mother of three, Susan founded the St. Louis Teachers’ Recycle Center in 1992 while still working as a full time teacher. Years earlier she traveled to Italy to study the Reggio Emilia Approach, a philosophy of early childhood education that leans heavily on the arts, and is paired with plenty of structured and unstructured play time. Children are allowed to explore, experiment and express their feelings through play and are active participants in the direction of their learning process.

Eager to learn more about the Reggio Emilia Approach, Susan then attended another conference in Boston and, through an enrollment mishap, ended up in a class on “Recycling.” The class was led by Dr. Walter Drew, the founding Executive Director of the Boston Public School’s Recycle Center. “From there I was sold,” says Susan. “Teacher’s spend so much of their own money on their stuff. I’ve got teachers that come to me and say ‘if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have blocks in our kindergarten classroom, because we can’t afford them!”

IMG_9443The vast amount of donated inventory crammed into the small store front is overwhelming. There are garbage cans filled with wine corks and magic markers, large bins of buttons, shelves of trophies, shoe boxes, scrap fabric, empty jugs, wood blocks of various shapes and sizes, and an incredible amount of paraphernalia from the medical supply industry. Many other items are indescribable and are a complete mystery, but provocative in every case.

Susan started the first Recycle Center in her garage, and then moved it to a Junior Achievement Building in her neighborhood where she was allowed to distribute materials for three months out of the year; June thru August. “It was a cinder block building with a tar roof, no windows and no air conditioning. I filled it in a month and I invited all of my teacher friends. It was my test market,” she confided.

IMG_9438For the next few years Susan moved the materials back into and out of storage for the summer months, until Dr. Sanford of Lindbergh School District invited her to take up residence in one of their schools. The Recycle Center continued to grow and moved another 17 times over the years, finally settling at their current stores in Chesterfield Mall and on Lemay Ferry in South County.

The organization has a traveling Recycle Center called “VanGo” that is currently filled with children’s books. Children are encouraged to go on board and choose a free book, in exchange for the promise that they will read the book that they take. VanGo can be found out and about in the community visiting fairs, festival and other family-friendly events in the region. The group also maintains three pods that are located at different area schools by keeping them filled with supplies from the Recycle Center. When asked if she has enough inventory to keep the stores, van and pods filled, Susan replied, “I have more than I can possibly tell you … we have a warehouse filled with donations.”

IMG_9420The store is open to the general public, and everything is FREE, with a small service fee of $1 per pound. For those who like to buy in bulk, Pound Passes in larger amounts can yield more poundage, for instance a $90 pass will gain you 125 pounds of materials. The smallest Pound Pass is $10 for 10 pounds.

A list of accepted items for donation can be found here.

Donations are only accepted during normal store hours. Since the stores are manned by volunteers, they are not open every day of the week. Visitors should consult store hours on the Center’s website at www.sltrc.com.

IMG_9446Susan Blandford is also the founding Executive Director of Play Your Art Out, an interactive, hands-on workshop and play space for children located in Chesterfield Mall. To learn more about Susan and her passion project, check out the article Play Your Art Out: “You just can’t be wrong in here.”

Chesterfield Mall

Lemay Ferry

Play Your Art Out: You just can’t be wrong in here

A shopping mall is probably the last place you’d expect to find a unique and creative outlet designed to engage kids. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Play Your Art Out, a “hands-on play experience” that benefits children, both physically and mentally.

After her work to get the St. Louis Teacher’s Recycle Center up and running, (see the article Saving the Environment One Classroom at a Time,) Susan Blandford decided to further pursue her love of teaching children by opening Play Your Art Out in 2009. An ardent proponent of the Reggio Emilia Approach for Early Childhood Education, she believes that playtime is essential to nurturing creative young minds.

Susan explains, “the idea of the play studio isn’t about playing to make art, it’s playing to find the art of who you are. That’s a hard sell because people are used to just coming in and they want to be on their cell phone. That’s the first rule for parents … turn off and be with your kids.”

IMG_9459The play studio is located on the ground floor of Chesterfield Mall near Sears and the children’s playground. Money raised here is used to keep the Recycle Center afloat, and all materials used in the studio are obtained from the Recycle Center. The Recycle Center is how Susan got started in non-profit, but the play studio workshop is her passion project, asserting that “kids are amazing when they play.”

This is not a facility where parents are allowed to drop off their kids while they shop. Everything is structured around parent and child activity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent and child will be playing with each other, but all parties will be engaged for the duration of the visit. Susan advises, “I want parents to re-engage with their kids.”

Parents have as much to learn at these workshops as the kids do. “Even more,” says Susan, “because they are so afraid that their child is not going to be in an activity, and is doing everything perfectly, and getting into college …. and the kid is three!”

The play space is divided into several areas with the most notable, a carpeted area in the front room, containing neatly organized bins full of cubes, spools, tiles and shapes made from cardboard, foam, wood, plastic or any number of otherwise strange and unusual materials. Children are invited to play quietly in this area with any of the available materials and to make a creation which is then shared in a small exhibit, alongside those of the other participants.

“I think that’s where creativity starts is with children’s play, and when they lose that playful thing, it’s like they’re getting tested on everything that they do,” cautions Susan.

IMG_9462After a while the children move to the art studio where they are given paint and brushes. Susan tells the kids, “You’re gonna play with paint! I don’t want you to worry about painting a picture, just dance your brush on your paper.” She continues “We really want to get away from the fact that they think that they have to create something that somebody else likes.”

If painting is not appealing for the child, they have the option of working with other materials and media by using collage boards, hats, masks and decorating boxes. Susan points out that “We have to realize that we are training children that there’s only one answer, and that’s usually by filling in some little circle.”

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Susan emphasises that there are no right or wrong ways to play or to create. Parents are discouraged from interjecting “helpful” comments to their children during playtime, leaving the child to control the direction of their experimentation.

Near the end of the art session the kids will be asked to “journal,” a chance for them to write down what they were thinking and feeling while they played. Some of the writings by these young authors are incredibly profound, with one little girl exclaiming, “You just can’t be wrong in here!”

Susan adds, “Then they partner with one other person and they do not get to speak, they just listen to their partner. They look them in the eyes and they listen to them, and after they listen they can drag them to their own pile and they get to listen to them, so that there’s a shared thing. Then we have them play cooperatively. It’s all to build this kind of inner realization that you have a voice in the room.”

IMG_9453Realizing the worth of this program, Whole Foods has stepped in to offer their “One Dime at a Time” promotion, which gives 10 cents to the program each time that a customer uses their own bag. Play Your Art Out will also be hosting Whole Foods Kids’ Club on the first Friday of each month starting in July, and it will be free to parents who go to Whole Foods and retrieve a “Play Pass.” The promotion starts in local stores on July 7.

After spending a particularly poignant bonding moment with her daughter, a parent once said to Susan, “We just came to the mall to buy a pair of shoes!,” to which Susan replied, “You can’t buy that (experience) out there,” continuing “I’m kind of an oxymoron to be in a mall because I’m all about reuse and don’t go buy something you don’t need.”

She continues, “There’s so much that happens in here at any given time that it’s really hard to put it into words for parents about what I do in here. You have to experience it! They’ll come and stand at the door and ask ‘what are we making here today?’ and I’ll say ‘I have no idea.’ They want a plan, but that’s not who we are. Once they’re in here and they see their kids engaged for a long time, and they see them playing with paint, I’ll be happy if I can get that parent to sit down and play with paint next to their child.”

IMG_9468When asked if she had any advice for today’s parents, Susan stresses “Let kids be young. When they’re having a meltdown at the mall it’s because you’ve overextended your stay, it’s not because they’re misbehaving. That’s all they can behave.”

Play sessions need to be reserved in advance, and for $15 a child can get three hours in the play studio. Susan suggests that “Parents don’t think their kids will want to stay that long, but they’re wrong. This mall is becoming more child friendly with the train, and I’m not the only place in here that offers children’s programs.” The workshop is recommended for birthday parties, field trips, scouts, homeschoolers, summer camps, or just any kid and parent who would like to spend a couple of hours playing.

For more information, check out the Play Your Art Out website at www.playyourartout.com.

Vintage Model Trains Chug Around The Big Bend Railroad Club

X38A9055Drive through the especially curvy, bendy section of Big Bend Blvd. in Webster Groves just west of Elm and you’ll pass an unassuming railroad terminal. The Webster Groves depot opened for business in 1910. Passenger service to the depot stopped in 1968, although passenger and freight trains still run along the tracks outside the station.

What makes the building truly unique is what is inside the depot. Since 1938, the building has been home to the Big Bend Railroad Club. Step inside and you’ll see an amazing layout—a dream come true for any model railroad enthusiast.

Winding through the former waiting room is a 60-foot-long O-scale 2-rail model railroad. It’s similar to the Lionel O-scale, but Lionel trains use a center rail for power and run on AC voltage. The trains at the Big Bend Railroad Club use DC voltage and run on scale track.

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Big Bend Railroad Club members Ken Rimmel, Rich Melka, Bob O’Neill and Jerry Affeldt.

The entire layout covers 800 feet of mainline track. Four trains and two yard operations can run simultaneously. The design is known as point-to-point. That means a train will run from one defined location to another. That is a bit different from the loop design you’ll see in many basement setups.

The Big Bend Railroad Club’s train layout also includes two major terminals. They are the Springfield and the Ozark, with an intermediate stop. This mirrors the actual Springfield and Ozark terminals that once were key stops along the Springfield & Southern Railway.

X38A9064You can view the vintage model trains running at the old Webster Groves depot at 8833 Big Bend Blvd. from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. There’s no set fee to enter, but a door donation helps defray operating costs. The depot is open every Tuesday night for maintenance, but the trains don’t run those nights.

On any given Tuesday evening, you’re likely to see members of the club checking track, making sure cars are operating correctly and generally having a good time.

X38A9061
Club secretary Ken Rimmel with a heavyweight passenger car.

Club secretary and unofficial historian Ken Rimmel said even though the Big Bend Railroad Club isn’t the oldest in the U.S., the Webster Groves location was their first and only home.

“Within a few years of our starting, a friend of a father of our first club president worked for the Frisco Railroad, and on a handshake deal we’ve been here ever since,” Rimmel said.

It was originally called the Model Railroad Club of Webster Groves, but changed to Big Bend Railroad Club after moving into the depot. In 1950, the club became a non-profit organization.

The building itself is a relic of a bygone era, and it very nearly disappeared in 1994. That’s when the Frisco Railroad and its successor, Burlington Northern Railroad, no longer had a signal maintenance facility in the east half of the building. It also meant a wrecking ball had its sights on the depot. The Big Bend Railroad Club purchased the building from the railroad and obtained a long-term lease on the land.

In the process, the club ensured a vintage model railroad would continue to chug around the track inside an old rail terminal for years to come.

For more information about the Big Bend Railroad Club, visit their website at www.bigbendrrclub.org.

Scrimshaw: A Whale of an Art Form

Utilizing the art of Scrimshaw, a centuries old technique originally developed by sailors on whaling vessels, artist Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky from Eureka is one of those rare individuals who has been able to achieve a lifelong career working as an artist.

Asked how she found herself working with scrimshaw, Mike relayed, ““It’s an American art form, it’s a folk art, and my bachelor’s degree was in art, but I loved American History too. It was a good way to put the two together. I was a sculpture major, so I kind of thought three dimensionally, but I loved drawing. I dabbled in it at first, and it grew from a hobby to way more than that. I’ve been in business now since 1979. Thirty-eight years!”

IMG_9390Initially adopted as a means for sailors to kill time on long ocean voyages, the art of scrimshaw is considered centuries later to be an important Early American art form. The men on board ship would use whatever tools and materials they had at hand; sail needles, pocket knives, ink, lampblack, discarded pieces of whale bones and teeth. Over time these creations became more imaginative and artistically sophisticated, often portraying nautically themed subjects or scenes of exotic locales.

Mike begins each new piece by lightly penciling a rough outline on her highly polished medium. Using a large steel needle, she delicately carves incredibly detailed etchings on often very tiny surfaces. It should be noted that Mike does all of her work without the aid of magnification. Once the etching is completed, black ink is wiped over the surface and worked into the tiny etched crevices to highlight the detail. The work is tedious and time-consuming.

IMG_9398Finding new pieces of bone or ivory to etch has become quite an art in itself the past decade or so, due to federal laws governing the sale and transport of animal ivory. Mike advises that she works 100% earth-friendly, often using an especially dense type of cow bone, deer antlers, polymers or reclaimed ivory from the keys of antique pianos. Every once in awhile a special piece is procured for carving, like a fossilized mastodon tooth from Alaska.

Before the internet was readily available Mike and her family traveled the nation selling her work at art fairs, but these days she sells online and at a few very select art shows. Her work is currently featured in 30 shops and galleries across the U.S., and each piece that Mike creates is completely hand forged and original. Her work has gained considerable notoriety, prompting her listing in the prestigious Early American Life Directory of Artists for the past 21 years, a curated collection of the top 100 master craftsman in the nation.

Scrimshaw is not Mike’s only form of artistic expression. She created illustrations for the book “Missouri Life – Lewis and Clark’s Journey Across Missouri,” cover art for “The History of Eureka,” and was an artist and designer for two of the STL250 Birthday Cakes on display throughout the Metro region in 2016.

IMG_9399Mike recognizes the importance of inspiring young artists to carry on artistic traditions, so she works with Partners in Education by going into schools and talking to kids about the history of scrimshaw. She has worked closely with schools and civic organizations to create ornaments for the National Christmas Tree at the White House for six of the past seven years. Groups involved with these projects include Kirkwood High School, Ferguson High School, Hazelwood Middle School and school children in Joplin, Missouri right after the devastating tornado of 2011.

“Joplin was an especially eerie one,” Mike recounts, “the school had been blown away so I worked with the kids in a warehouse. The teacher had no supplies … four paintbrushes! I broke down the project so that I could employ as many kids as possible. When I finished I sent in my report to the Governor and had to list how many kids we used. The Governor’s office called and said, ‘your report is here and it says you used 161 kids.’ I said, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ (The caller) was quiet for a minute and then said ‘161 people were killed in the tornado.’”

Mike’s advocacy for the arts does not stop there, as she has held some impressive titles over the years, serving as Executive Director for Boardlink, a non-profit training organization, the Missouri Artisans Association, Best of Missouri’s Hands and the state’s art guild.  In September she retired as Executive Director for Missouri Citizens for the Arts, an advocacy agency working to fund five cultural partners in Missouri; the Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Humanities Council, Public Broadcasting, Missouri Preservation and Historic Trust, and the Library Districts. Mike is also the Arts Editor for The Healthy Planet magazine, a health, wellness & natural living publication.

Retirement for Mike surely does not mean that she’ll be slowing down anytime soon. She is still creating scrimshaw and taking commissions from clients, as well as teaching studio painting classes in Eureka and Wildwood for St. Louis Community College’s Continuing Education program.

IMG_9396When asked how the general public can help to support visual artists, Mike encourages us all to “Buy local, buy art! You know I always hear from people, ‘Oh, look at this picture I got!,” and I’ll think ‘oh, it’s a print.’ Buy a real piece of art! There is so much great art available. Who knows, it could be the next Picasso! Support local artists and buy what speaks to you.”

She continues, “when you don’t see something that you really want, talk to the artist. They love to work with people, at least I do! We love to do special orders and collaborate with the individuals and make something that is meaningful for them. It shouldn’t just be something you hang on a wall or sit on a table, it should have meaning to you. That’s the value of art, that meaningfulness.”

You can view Mike’s catalog of work at her website, www.stonehollowstudio.com, or catch a live viewing at ASL Pewter in Ste. Genevieve on July 22-23.

 

Premium All-Natural Soap With A Noble Mission At sammysoap

Wide World of Soaps
Wide world of soaps at sammysoap.

Here’s a test: Go to your bathroom and look at the label of the soap you’re using.

It may well have stearic acid, sodium stearate, maltol and tetrasodium etidronate. Now, investigate a little further into the properties of these common ingredients of a popular soap brand. The summary reads “This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin.”

Many soaps are loaded with synthetic ingredients but they smell pretty good, they are readily available and are inexpensive. These soaps will clean dirt off of your hands and face, but that’s about it.

If you want soap that contains all-natural emollients and essential oils along with the standard base ingredient (glycerine), you will need to head over to sammysoap at 123 W. Argonne Drive in Kirkwood. The staple at sammysoap—bar soap—are vegan and do not have any artificial dyes, fillers or synthetics.

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Walk in to sammysoap (just across the street from the Kirkwood Amtrak station) and you’ll be enveloped in an intoxicating blend of aromas. They are coming at you from the wide array of soaps on display. You may also catch a waft of soap brewing in the sammysoap factory in the back of the building.

There’s one more thing about sammysoap that sets it apart. This is a business with a clear and noble mission. sammysoap is a job creation enterprise. sammysoap employees are adults with intellectual disabilities.

sammysoap was created by Karen Copeland and Beth Forsee. Copeland’s son Sam is the namesake of the brand. After Sam graduated from high school, his developmental disability made him ineligible for competitive employment. By the time he turned 21, he WAS eligible for adult day care, in an Alzheimer’s unit. It lacked much in the way of stimulation, and Sam was bored to tears. He wanted to work and had the ability to work. There just weren’t any jobs available other than low-paying “slop-and-mop” gigs where adults like Sam often find themselves.

Karen Copeland of Sammysoap
Karen Copeland in the sammysoap factory with a double boiler.

Karen Copeland figured there must be a better way. It helped that she had retail experience and knowledge of the disability services industry. She’s also a natural problem-solver. One thing she had little knowledge of was soap.

“I had to come up with an idea,” she said. “That was all-natural soap. I thought if I don’t know anything about this great alternative to what’s in the big boxes, nobody else does either. So we started making cold-processed soap at the house, my kids called it ‘Breaking Bad soap.’”

Beth Forsee came on board, along with another partner Joe Fischer, and they were off and running. They opened the store in Kirkwood in November 2014, and have been a must-stop for shoppers from day one.

Beth Forsee and Karen Copeland-2
Beth Forsee and Karen Copeland.

The soap-makers in the sammysoap factory share Sam’s attributes—a disability and a desire to be productive in a world where there are few available jobs. sammysoap is not a non-profit, it is not a sheltered workshop and it is not a readiness program. The company is not funded by any state or federal program. It does offer a fair wage for anyone willing to work. And it smells really good.

That’s not all. The products at sammysoap are good for you. The distinct aroma of the bars (ranging from eucalyptus to cinnamon spice to chocolate, to name a few) can actually calm you down or improve your mood. The smell of chocolate can perk you up if you’re down in the dumps. If you have a burn or rash, oatmeal provides a natural antihistamine. Each soap at sammysoap has a purpose to match its smell. The commercial soap you get at the grocery may smell good, but it’s probably filled with chemicals and additives with few health benefits.

The soap at sammysoap is different.

“It’s really good for you,” Copeland said. “The ingredients we use are the basis for all pharmacology. It’s medicine for your skin.”

Dog Soap.JPGIf you have a group interested in the soapmaking process, sammysoap offers tours of the factory. There’s no real secret to the basic formula. Soapmaking hasn’t changed much for centuries.

“We use a cold process to create a chemical reaction,” Copeland said. “It starts with a double boiler, because some emollients will go solid at cool temperature so we have to heat them enough to mix them. We start with lye and oil and they start a reaction, a process that makes glycerine and that’s soap.

“It’s kind of like cooking, you start experimenting, you have the pantry, it’s all about having the pantry, but in our case it’s a very expensive pantry. [Copeland held up a quart bottle of natural oil.] A bottle like this can cost $5,000.”

SammySoap Interior
Inside the sammysoap store in downtown Kirkwood.

A visit to the sammysoap store offers a unique and happy sensory experience. There’s the aroma, which hits you as soon as you walk in. It’s intense, but in a good way. Then there’s the positive vibe from the mission of the store—to provide good jobs for hardworking people who don’t have too many good options. The employees are having a good time and making a high-quality product. And the building itself is something of a curiosity. It once served as the Kirkwood fire station and there are remnants of its past all around.

The location itself is a perfect fit, in a shopping district where walk-ins are common. It’s also helpful for sammysoap employees, because the factory is easy to reach, with access to public transportation. The enterprise is a formula for success. Copeland boiled it down to a few simple reasons.

“Everybody loves the soap, it’s fun, it’s good for you, and it fulfills a social need.”

For more information about sammysoap, visit their website at www.sammysoap.com.

The St. Louis Carousel: A Treasure Saved

Carousels have been a part of history for more than a thousand years and certainly since the Middle Ages when knights used them for training purposes. The name itself is derived from the Spanish word “carosella,” or “little battle.” Objects, like the proverbial brass ring, were placed outside the carousel and were to be grabbed or skewered by the knight’s sword. Jousting practice was also part of the carousel’s history until a member of the Medici family was killed. Rich people spoil it for everyone, heh?

Continue reading “The St. Louis Carousel: A Treasure Saved”

Renewed Elegance – The Webster Groves Concert Hall

Many of us have happy childhood memories of going to the neighborhood movie house and spending hours in the dark, watching our heroes and heartthrobs on the giant screen. Movie houses were the mainstay of American life for most of the last century, often acting as the center of neighborhood activity. Families would walk to the theatre to catch a show during the week, and on Saturday afternoon the seats were filled with kids watching their favorite serials or adventure movies.

Before the accessibility of the internet, these movie houses were our windows to the world. During the early 1980s these windows were smashed forever when home video players and rentable movies became the new way of life for the American family. Satellite and cable service soon followed and before the decade was over, the old movie houses started closing up.

Ozark1921The early 20th century was a very different time for movie lovers. The medium was young and newly available to rural areas. Across America movie palaces began to spring up in large and small towns alike. In 1921 the Ozark Theatre began construction on a tiny dirt road in rural Webster Groves, a mission style movie palace with an ornately tiled facade.

This was during the pinnacle of the silent film era, with big hits of the day including Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid,” and Rudolf Valentino’s “The Sheik.” The Ozark could seat 1,100 people for a single viewing and, as was normal in those days, had no air conditioning to offer other than a few windows near the ceiling that would allow some air into the packed house. Since St. Louis summers have always been notoriously hot and humid, the theatre also sported an outdoor “airdome,” for viewing movies outside during the summer months.

Ozark1990During the late 1960s the theatre owners decided to update the facade of the building. “It looked like a Pizza Hut had been stuck on the front of the building,” says owner Dan Stevens. By 1979 competition from the new cinemas offering two and three screens became fierce. The theatre closed and soon after became a medical and dental training school. The inside of the theatre was nearly gutted and revised to include offices and classroom space.

The Stevens family bought the building in 1988 and Dan’s parents, John and Moir Stevens, opened Sterling Pen, a stationary and printing business. The business operated in this location for 16 years and in 2004 moved to a smaller space in Kirkwood. Dan had long dreamt of opening the building as a theatre of some type and used this opportunity to begin renovations.

IMG_9273Steven’s took great care in disassembling the box-like addition to the front of the building, finding and then protecting as much of the original facade as possible. Approximately 40% of the tiles had been damaged over the years due to weather and other factors of deterioration. Dan wanted the building’s face to be restored as closely as possible to the original, and commissioned Krueger Pottery of Webster Groves to recreate all of the missing or damaged tiles. Stevens told us “They (Krueger) built every one of those pieces by hand. We were their best customer for about three years.” Although the theatre is slowly regaining its original beauty and elegance, Stevens continues to work constantly on his restoration efforts.

Operating a concert venue was a natural for Stevens, a long time musician himself who has been involved in the St. Louis jazz scene for decades. In recent years he has assumed leadership of the Johnny Kaye Orchestra, a big band based out of the Great Lakes Region of Illinois and Wisconsin. During the winter months, December to April, Stevens heads south to Texas and leads the Johnny Kaye Ramblers, a scaled down version of the Kaye Orchestra.

DanStevensDan partnered a few years back with Dorothy Edwards, the former owner of Robbie’s Jazz & Blues in Webster, and they joined forces at the Ozark. Together the two of them, along with Dan’s wife Maugie, manage the theatre, run the concessions and book the acts.

As family businesses struggle to stay afloat, Dan, Maugie and Dorothy are intent on keeping their dream of bringing a concert hall to the county alive. Stevens imparts “Our competition, ie, Jazz at the Bistro, the Touhill, Focal Point, Webster University, Sheldon, are all “non-profit” organizations that are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, by the corporate world and by private donations. We don’t get anything from anybody. It’s a traditional (family) business.”

IMG_9274Although the moniker “Ozark Theatre” will forever be emblazoned on the building’s facade, the hall has recently been renamed the Webster Groves Concert Hall. The term “concert hall” is no small claim. Acoustic tiles cover the ceiling and walls, providing a clean sound and lyrical clarity that rivals the Sheldon Concert Hall. Bassist Glen Smith declares the hall “one of the best sounding venues in the area. (It) would be a great place to record.” Jazz trumpet player Randy Holmes advises “it’s got a really nice natural acoustic sound and allows us to play (horns) without much amplification.”

The bulk of the bands playing at the new concert hall are jazz, but Stevens hopes for a wider variety of music coming as musical groups begin to learn about his facility. The many classical ensembles who lost the Tavern of Fine Arts performance space last year would do well to give the Webster Groves Concert Hall a try.

insideOzarkPatrons are welcome to bring in their own food, or to have food delivered from one of several local dining establishments. A full lineup of beverages and cocktails are available from Miss Edwards at the bar. The hall offers plenty of free parking and, thankfully, 21st century air conditioning.

June 10-11 will feature the Second Miles Davis Jazz Festival featuring performances by Randy Holmes and his talented crew. Tickets can be obtained in advance for $15, or at the door for $20.

Other groups performing in coming weeks include a concert from the St. Louis Jazz Club on Saturday, July 8 at 4 p.m., and East Coast drumming sensation Winard Harper with Denise Thimes, also on July 8 at 8 p.m. For a full schedule or more information, visit webstergrovesconcerthall.org.

Authentic Philly Pretzels Made By Hand By Pretzel Boys

Tim Garvey and the Pretzel-Wagon

When chefs wants to learn the classic method for cooking, they go to the source. A master pizzaiolo will travel to Naples to achieve dough-making skills. The top tapas cooks  go to San Sebastián, Spain.

Tim Garvey wanted to make the perfect pretzel, so he went to Philadelphia. In the 1860s, the first American pretzel was thought to have been cooked in Pennsylvania. Immigrants from Austria and Germany brought their recipe and technique for cooking the “bretzel” to the U.S.

Pretzels Ready To Bake
Pretzels ready to bake.

For nearly 150 years, the soft pretzel has been a staple in Philadelphia. It has a distinctive slightly-sweet taste and chain-link shape.

You don’t have to go to all the way to the City of Brotherly Love to get an authentic Philly pretzel. Just stop in at one of the Pretzel Boys shops in Des Peres (11750 Manchester Rd.) or Sunset Hills (3802 S. Lindbergh Blvd.). Pretzel Boys has been in business about six and a half years.

Garvey and his crew of pretzel makers churn out hundreds of chewy, hot steaming pretzels every day. It’s a labor of love for Garvey, who grew up in Philadelphia. After moving to St. Louis, while he was in high school, Garvey sold Gus’s Pretzels around Busch Stadium before Cardinals games. Eventually, he decided to strike out on his own.

Pretzel Counter

“I would go to Philadelphia for a week or two at a time, for three or four trips, to learn everything about pretzel-making,” he said.

That included the precise temperatures required for boiling and baking, and the proper technique for dough-kneading. The entire process is a a two-day event. Like New York bagels and Neapolitan pizza, you can’t rush the dough.

Special Order-Duck
Special order–duck-shaped pretzel.

The result is delicious, and popular, as is evident from the constant stream of pretzel aficionados picking up orders at the Pretzel Boys locations. They’ll even make unusual shaped pretzels for special occasions. There’s a shape book available to peruse the options.

And, although Pretzel Boys pretzels are excellent straight out of the oven, they retain their chewiness hours later.

Des Peres

Sunset Hills

West County Spinners – Not Your Grandmother’s Square Dance Group

On the first and third Mondays of each month, the West County Spinners host an evening of Square and Round Dancing at Trinity Lutheran Church in Chesterfield. With membership currently around 100, these bi-monthly gatherings are full of activity, music, exercise, dancing and, most importantly, friendship. Continue reading “West County Spinners – Not Your Grandmother’s Square Dance Group”